Most multilateral organisations face the daunting task of adapting to new 21st century economic, political and social realities.
Set up in the aftermath of World War II, global institutions at the core of the international system, such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are under pressure to respond to the rise of the world’s emerging powers.
The G20, which brings together industrialised countries and the world’s leading rising powers – including China, India and Brazil – was created in 1999 to complement the more restricted G8 composed of traditional industrialised powers. Demands for more effective governance now also beset the G20.
Not surprisingly, renewal and reform are also the name of the game for ASEM, the Asia-Europe partnership launched in Bangkok in March 1996 to build stronger region-to-region ties.
ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting), with its 51 partners, is an important multilateral platform for Asia-Europe contacts which allows the two regions to interact in myriad ways.
Trade and investment flows are booming, the two regions share concerns about regional and global peace and security and meet regularly within the ASEM framework to discuss issues as varied as urbanisation, river basin management, food security and education.
But there is no doubt: ASEM must adapt to the changing landscape in both Asia and Europe if it is to remain credible and relevant.
Interestingly, that means going back to the original informality and flexibility of ASEM and the immense Asia-Europe networking opportunities it offers.
On the plus side, ASEM includes five of the European Union’s strategic partners – China, Japan, India, South Korea and Russia – and four of the UN Security Council’s permanent members – China, Russia, Britain and France.
The fact that new countries continue to demand entry into the club – which began with 26 founding members in 1996 – is a mark of ASEM’s attractiveness and vigour. Once inside the partnership, European and Asian countries of all sizes interact with each other on an equal footing.
The forum also provides a platform for ample bilateral contacts between leaders and officials of both sides.
Yet, the need for renewal is pressing. ASEM meetings over the years have become more formal and ritualistic, with ministers and leaders reading out well-prepared statements instead of engaging in direct dialogue.
Meetings of ASEM senior officials have become long and drawn-out as participants talk more about procedures and dates than substantial questions.
The progress they make can appear slow, plodding and incremental. ASEM participants often complain that their work is not visible to the public, that ASEM does not punch its weight in the over-crowded field of global cooperation platforms.
The consensus is that 17 years after its launch amid much fanfare, ASEM is in need of a new lease of life.
Ironically this could be achieved by taking ASEM “back to the future” and rediscovering the initial rationale behind the partnership. The aim is to recover ASEM’s initial focus on substance over protocol and ritual.
Efforts to make ASEM more pragmatic, effective and result-oriented – and more relevant to partners’ economic and social priorities – have dominated deliberations for the last few years.
Progress on revitalising ASEM is gaining momentum in the run-up to the ASEM summit hosted by the EU and set to be held in Milan, Italy, in autumn 2014.
ASEM foreign ministers meeting in Delhi on November 11-12 are expected to endorse a number of changes which many hope will inject new life into the Asia-Europe partnership.
Asian and European policymakers have agreed to streamline and simplify ASEM working methods to ensure that ASEM foreign ministers and leaders engage in a real, in-depth and focused conversation on key concerns.
As such, when they meet in Delhi in November, in addition to attending 2 official plenary sessions, ASEM foreign ministers will engage in a “retreat” to ensure more intensive and interactive dialogue.
Discussions in the plenaries will focus on sustainable economic growth and development and on non-traditional security issues, including issues such as food, energy and water security, cyber security and counter-terrorism.
The “retreat” will look at international and regional flashpoints including the Middle East, North Korea and Iran.
Efforts are being made to ensure that chair’s statements and other documents issued at the end of ASEM meetings are short, simple and to-the-point.
Based on existing mechanisms, there is now agreement to work on cooperation projects which are even more visible and tangible for benefit of Asia and Europe.
Following the recent membership of Norway, Switzerland and Bangladesh, ASEM expansion is expected to continue as Croatia, which became the 28th member state of the EU on July 1 2013, formally joins ASEM next year.
ASEM partners also face the uphill task of securing stronger public understanding, awareness and support for the Asia-Europe partnership, especially in the run up to the summit in 2014 and two years later when ASEM celebrates its 20th anniversary.
If ASEM reform is implemented as planned, 2016 could become an important milestone in a reinvigorated Asia-Europe partnership, a must in the 21st century.